Geraldine Ferraro was a far better qualified candidate than Sarah Palin. But the Alaska governor does have one thing in common with the first female vice presidential candidate for a major political party: the ability to tap into a noxious strain of populist resentment that has been one of the most powerfully corrosive forces in American politics for more than a century. Both have channeled George C. Wallace.
Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, populist movements that pitted the so-called people against so-called elites have had both positive and negative consequences. They helped to bring about a plethora of progressive reforms—the graduated income tax, the spread of the secret ballot, and the regulation of banks and corporations. Theodore Roosevelt, whom John McCain claims is his hero, is perhaps the best example of that kind of progressive populism.
But populism has always had a dark side, symbolized in recent decades by Wallace, the late segregationist governor of Alabama. In this brand of populism, the resentment of "big shots" who control the banks, the media and the country is inextricably mixed with a hatred of blacks and other minorities, whom the government supposedly favors—with public largesse—over the silent white majority. And it's this branch of populism, the ugly impulse that made Wallace the most terrifying figure on the political scene during the late 1960s and early 1970s, to which both Ferarro and Palin seem to belong.
I'm familiar with Ferraro's record from having been part of the panel of journalists who questioned her and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush when they debated in 1984. Her resentful streak surfaced during the years that she served as the congressional representative from the district in Queens, N.Y., known as the home of the bigoted TV character Archie Bunker. As such, she was a champion of opposition to affirmative action and an advocate of school vouchers for parochial schools—stances that would have pleased the "All in the Family" character but were anathema to more liberal Democrats, including Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee who picked Ferraro as his running mate.
In deference to Mondale, she downplayed those attitudes during the campaign. But they resurfaced during the current primary season when Ferraro offered a controversial explanation for Barack Obama's triumph over her candidate, Hillary Clinton: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is."
When reporters questioned her about the remarks, she opined that "racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?" Not even Wallace could have said it better.
In Palin's case, the Wallace connection is through a shared resentment at supposed elitists whose academic, intellectual and professional achievements are far superior to her own. In his rhetorical assaults on federal government officials pushing for desegregation, Wallace denounced "pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park a bicycle straight."
That's the same angry sentiment Palin expressed in her interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, when she said, "We've got to remember what the desire is in this nation at this time. It is for no more politics as usual and somebody's big, fat résumé maybe that shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment, where, yes, they've had opportunities to meet heads of state."
In subsequent talks with CBS's Katie Couric, Palin smiled while sneering at "those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world."
Her Wallace-style contempt for Washington insiders came through again in a telephone interview with conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, in which she declared that the current financial crisis is a reason to " put government back on the side of the people [like] Joe Six-Pack."
The key phrase in these interviews is "big, fat résumé," a disdainful putdown of what is more commonly known as credentials and experience, and which Palin's Democrat opponent, Joe Biden, has in abundance. If this were a contest based on qualifications and fitness for the office, there would be no question about the outcome.
But in American politics, as George Wallace proved, a big mouth and a load of resentment can go a long way. They can mask the fact that Palin's Republican Party actually does far more to benefit the "fat cats" it claims to revile than it does for average people. Richard Nixon won the White House four decades ago in part by co-opting Wallace's message. It remains to be seen how far his message will get Palin.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.